The Priesthood of All Believers

by Alexander Hay

groupThe priesthood of all true believers is clearly and emphatically taught in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:5-9; Rev. 1:6). It is seen in practice in all the order and functioning of the New Testament churches. However, in the church order of today it is rejected.

It is in this matter so vital to the whole life and structure of the church, and in the ministries of the Church-Planter, Elder, and Deacon, that the greatest and most fundamental changes have been made in the order which Christ gave to His church.

Now it is only the Pastor (Elder) and (in some cases) the Deacon who are given the position of priests, all others being considered as "laity"--a term not found in the New Testament, and completely foreign and destructive to the order given to the church by Christ.

Satan's objective in accomplishing this is clear: it has affected the church at its most vital point because it has not only robbed the great majority of believers of the privileges and responsibilities of priesthood that Christ gave them, but has also taken the authority from Christ, the Head and Builder, and put it into the hands of men. As A.W. Tozer has said, the youngest Pastor (in the modern sense) has more real authority in the congregation than Christ does. This has resulted in the transforming of the church from a body, each member actuated by and responsible to Christ the Head, into an organization with human leaders who have superior authority and come between the members and Christ. Coupled with this has been the inevitable substitution of man's talents for the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit which has in turn taken from the church its spiritual equipment and power.

In the structure which Christ gave to His church, the authority is always directly in His hands and the power comes directly from Him. This is made very clear in Matt. 18:15-20 and many other passages. He placed the responsibility for knowing His will and obeying His Word directly upon the whole congregation gathered together, a gathering of priests, all equal, and equally responsible, through the different ministries and gifts of the Spirit, and they were directly responsible to Him. Each one individually is responsible to know His Word and will, and obey Him. When a Church-Planter, Elder or church acted, it had to be always and only on the ground of "Thus saith the Lord," and it was absolutely forbidden to take away or add to anything given in Scripture (Rev. 22:18-19). For example, when Paul instructed the church in Corinth to separate from the one in sin, he told them to do so in "the name of Christ" and with "the power of Christ" (1 Cor. 5:4) because they were obeying Christ's command. And it was they who had to do it. Paul did not and could not do it for them. Every decision, every action, was taken on that basis. And all the work was done as the Holy Spirit manifested Himself through them.

Today's Divisions

The church today is divided into many different denominations and groups with different forms of government, all of them differing widely from the Scriptural pattern. Briefly these could be classified as follows:

(1) The Episcopal form of government is the nearest to the organization that developed in Babylon, although all the different denominational organizations retain some of its principles. The responsibilities of the Elder's ministry have been increased and divided up, and then given to priests, pastors (in the modern sense), bishops, arch-bishops, Cardinals, and many others. The Deacon's ministry has been changed and divided in a similar way. The Church-Planter's ministry is discarded. Other ministries have been added. The priesthood is given to the "clergy" and taken from the members of the church who are called "laity." This form of government has no basis whatever in the New Testament. It is entirely man-conceived and contrary to the principles of God's order.

(2) Practically all other systems of government can be classed under the Congregational form, which theoretically puts responsibility for some things on the congregation. But the decisions of the congregation are made, not by the guidance of the Spirit, or on the authority of Scripture, but by the majority vote of the members. Here also, the result is that the actual power and authority is taken from Christ and given to the assembly.

These churches have a simpler structure. However, the result is the same. In the majority of them, the plurality of Elders has been discarded, and the one "Pastor" substituted. He alone ends up with full priestly authority, the other members being considered "laymen."

In some denominations the Elder's ministry has been divided into two classes--ordained, ministering Elders, and "lay" elders. This is so in churches with the Presbyterian form of government. In others, as in most Baptist churches, the plurality of Elders has been reduced to one ordained Elder, or "Pastor."

In the Presbyterian form there is one ordained, ministering Elder (the Pastor), several "lay" Elders (an unscriptural designation), and several Deacons. While in the Baptist form there is one ordained Elder (the pastor) and several Deacons. All except the one ordained minister are "laymen." The majority of so-called Independent churches have followed the Baptist order and are also Pastor-oriented. In all these, the church members are "laymen."

In the Plymouth Brethren system, each congregation is independent and has several Elders. Deacons have been eliminated in violation of the Scriptural pattern. This system, which originally came out of an ecclesiastical background, though it has eliminated much, retains the influence of that system in the authority it gives to the Elders. It makes them in effect a self-elected, self-propagating oligarchy, taking from the congregation the authority which Christ gave directly to it. In the matter of choosing Elders, the congregation has no say. The one (or ones) who start the congregation automatically becomes its Elder (or Elders). After that, the existing Elder or group of Elders chooses other Elders as he (or they) feel necessary without consulting the church. This is contrary to the New Testament pattern. Also, in separating from a member in sin, it is the Elders who act, informing the church later. Christ gave the authority for this to the church gathered together, not to the Elders (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5).

In Matthew 18:18 the Lord gives the authority to judge to the congregation. He did not give it to the Elders. The Elders have no authority to act without the congregation in such judgment. There is no evidence in the New Testament of their having done so. Paul wrote his instructions regarding the judging of sinners to the churches, never to the Elders. An Elder may rebuke (Titus 1:13). He may counsel someone on the ground of Matthew 5:23-24, or for some similar reason, that he should not partake at the Lord's Table until what was wrong is put right with the Lord. But he has no authority to separate a believer from the communion of the church. An Elder or group of Elders does not have the authority to act for the congregation nor to act in any way as intermediaries between the congregation and God. These are principles that are clearly defined in the New Testament record and yet are disobeyed on the ground of convenience, or through ignorance of the Word.

Paul was careful to recognize the fact that the responsibility for all the actions of a congregation is their's directly and cannot be delegated to, or usurped by, any other. He addressed His letters of instructions to the churches, never to the Elders. Our Lord did this also in what He said in His letters to the seven churches in Asia.

Thus, in this church system the spiritual responsibility that Christ gave to all the members is taken from them and given to the Elders. As in other groups also, custom has been permitted to sanctify forms that have no Scriptural foundation. The Church-Planter's ministry has been eliminated. The missionary becomes an Elder. When he starts a church, he becomes its first Elder. And, as he sees fit, without confirmation of the church, invites one or two of the converts to act as Elders with him. Each missionary is independent, which, along with the independence of each church, has resulted in many differences between different churches. Paul and his fellow missionaries worked together as one. They were carefully one in all their teaching and practice.

In addition to this, in this system of worship, women believers are deprived of an important part of their privileges as priests unto God, with the result that their spiritual growth is retarded.

The Brethren movement was a sincere reaction against the barriers set up by denominational differences. But it soon set up its own barriers. It eliminated much unscriptural form and ceremony, but also added what is not in Scripture. It was not a true attempt to know and return fully to the order Christ gave to the church.

This does not mean that in all these systems there are no born-again believers who truly love the Lord. There are, just as there were among the Jews when Christ was on earth, those who could become God's instruments in spite of the fact that the Word of God had been made of none effect by man's traditions. But it does mean that the priests unto God do not have the full freedom to be led and used in ministry as God intended.

Biased Reasoning

The suggestion (mainly by Presbyterians) that there was a group of Elders in each city or region, that each of these presided over a separate local church, that they sometimes met together to deal with special matters, and that they may be identified with the "angels" of the seven churches in Asia, is without any Scriptural or historical evidence to support it. The evidence of both Scripture and history is entirely against it. The "angels" were "messengers" of these churches.

The writings of those who have propounded these theories show that the writers were influenced largely by existing ecclesiastical order, and that they were seeking to find some vestige of it in the New Testament. It is evident that they had little knowledge of the order which Christ had given to His church, or of the spiritual principles upon which it is based.

Had there been such groups of Elders who would meet together when necessary to deal with important decisions, how is it that there is no reference to them, neither in the New Testament record nor in history? There certainly would have been, had they existed. In a matter of such importance, the Lord would not have left the church with no Scriptural guidance.

Priests in the New Testament

The following quotation from Fausset's Bible Cyclopedia in regard to the priesthood is of interest:

That the Christian ministry is not sacerdotal, as the Old Testament ministry, is proved by the title "hiereus," the Greek of sacerdos, being never once used of Christian ministers. When used at all as to the Christian church it is used of the whole body of Christians; since not merely ministers, as the Aaronic priests, but all equally, have near access to the heavenly holy place, through the rent veil of Christ's flesh (Heb. 10:19-22; 4:15-16; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6). All alike offer "spiritual sacrifices." For a minister to pretend to offer a literal sacrifice in the Lord's Supper, or to have the sacerdotal priesthood (which appertains to Christ alone), would be the sin which Moses charged on Korah: "Seemeth it a small thing to you that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation to bring you near to Himself... to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and seek ye the priesthood also."

Regarding the history of the change that has taken place in the Elder's ministry, Hatch has an interesting comment in his Organization of the Christian Churches:

By one of those slow and silent revolutions which the lapse of many centuries brings about in political as well as religious communities, the ancient conception of the office (of Elder) as essentially disciplinary and collegiate has been superseded by a conception of it in which not only is a single presbyter competent to discharge all a presbyter's functions, but in which also those functions are primarily not those of discipline, but "the ministration of the Word and Sacraments."

The testimony of history regarding the fact that in the early church there was a plurality of Elders in each church is clear. Here we shall deal with Christ's teaching and the New Testament practice.

Christ's Purpose for the Believer

The fact is that in the New Testament the teaching regarding the structure of the church, and the principles governing it, is ample and basic to the whole new revelation given in consequence of the death and resurrection of Christ. The gospel of grace and the church, the Body of Christ, are so interwoven that you cannot separate them. It must be remembered, for it is of the greatest significance, that Christ Himself gave the structure for His church, and that He gave it for the spiritual witness and growth of those who would become His. Paul makes it clear that:

  1. It was Christ who gave the "gifts of the Spirit" to the church.
  2. It was Christ who gave the ministries of Apostle, Preacher, Church-Planter, Elder and Teacher to the church.
  3. Christ made it clear that the purpose for which He gave all these was for the bringing of every member to spiritual maturity, that His image--the image of the indwelling Christ (that image that man lost in the fall)--should be fully formed in each and every member.
  4. That the members should not be immature, like children, deceived by Satan's efforts to introduce error, but spiritually mature, functioning together, each one in the place in the Body where God placed him or her, through the power and different spiritual gifts provided by the Holy Spirit.

All this is clearly given in Ephesians, particularly in chapter 4:16 (cf., Col. 1:24-29; Rom. 8:28-29). The modern set-up of the church, which in practice takes away the believer's priesthood, is not in line with Christ's purpose to bring each one to spiritual maturity. It is a master-work of Satan.

That man's forms of organization should have been accepted into the church is not altogether surprising. It can be understood. The purely spiritual order which Christ gave can be carried on only through the real, active presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is impossible for man to carry it on by his own wisdom and power. But the man-made organization that has been introduced is tailored to man. He can run it, taking the glory in the name of Christ. It must be remembered, therefore, that to return to Christ's order is not easy for men. It can be done only in the power and wisdom of the living, indwelling Christ--and by paying the full cost in the denial of self that it demands. And one of the basics that will foster a return to Christ's order is a practical realization of the priesthood of all believers.

Note: This article appeared in Field News, the publication of the New Testament Missionary Union, January-March, 1978, pp. 3-6.